|by Tim Priest|
Collections Manager, Grand Rapids Public Museum
The “Santa Express” made its debut at the new Herpolsheimer’s Department Store in 1949. The three-car monorail train rumbled around the ceiling of the toy department in the basement, entertaining children while their parents shopped for secret last-minute gifts.
During the 1960s the train became the “Rocket Express” in honor of America’s space race. In 1976 it gained a face with glasses and bright yellow coat of paint to become the “Caterpillar Express”. It last took on a jungle motif as the “Dino Express” in Mackie’s World. Entrusted to the Public Museum in 2000, the train has been preserved in climate controlled storage and displayed periodically.
A couple of years ago the Museum started putting the Herp's Train out on exhibit during the holidays and asked the community to share their childhood memories of the train. One of the first to respond was David Winick, a local Grand Rapidian who is known nationwide for his work professionally restoring Airstream trailers. Wininck remembered that when he had ridden the train as a kid it was silver in color, and upon reflection it was likely the inspiration for his interest in Airstreams.
The Museum was able to confirm Winick's recollections using a Life Magazine illustration from 1955. With this evidence in hand, the Museum asked Winick to help restore the train to its original "Santa Express" silver and red theme in 2010. They began by removing the rocket cone that was added in the 1960s and replaced it with a replica of the original 1949 cone. As multiple layers of paint were removed, the original colors were exposed. The first restored car will be on display through the middle of January 2011 in the lobby of the Museum. All three cars will eventually be returned to the same condition, allowing the Public Museum to officially rechristen the train as the “Santa Express”.
The images below show Public Museum Collection Technician Jon Kloote helping restoration expert Thom Gohl to detach the nose cone that was added in the 1960s; Thom Gohl removing the steel support that once attached the train to the monorail; and David Winick attaching the newly fabricated front end to the train.